• Published 26th Nov 2014
  • 5,232 Views, 170 Comments

Collaborators - Baal Bunny



Ahuizotl threatens to sue A. K. Yearling for libel unless she stops writing the Daring Do books. She makes him a counter-offer.

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Four

IV

The next morning, Ahuizotl came creeping in the back door just as day was breaking. I was right there at the kitchen table: every time I'd closed my eyes all night, the imagined stroke of his finger along my jaw had sent me leaping to my hooves with a cry. So I'd spent the hours before dawn sucking down bad coffee and refining my notes on the pyramid scene.

I nodded to the pot on the stove, he poured half of it into his vase, and we got right back to work.

As the weeks slipped by, we kept making good progress, and when I typed the last word of the last scene one mid-morning about a month and a half after we'd performed our little scene behind the house, he slapped the carpet and shouted, "We must celebrate!"

I shook my head. "We've got a lot of revising to do yet."

"Ha! Today, I shall not be bothered by such paltry details, and neither, my dear Daring, will you!" Looking from side to side, he suddenly grabbed the table lamp from beside the sofa and started unscrewing the shade. "We have performed a nearly miraculous deed, after all!" The lampshade came loose, and he trotted over to the desk with it held aloft in his tail hand. "We have survived three months in each other's company!" Carefully he lowered the shade over the stack of pages beside the typewriter. "Tomorrow, we shall release this beast from its confinement and attempt to tame it, but today, you will fly into town and procure these items!" Seizing a blank sheet and a pencil, he did some quick scrawling and slammed the paper onto the desk. "I trust you will not find the task too daunting?"

Narrowing my eyes, I looked from his smirking face to the piece of paper. He'd written two words there: Rice and Beans. "Pinto beans, of course," he continued, "while the rice may be whatever sort they have available. Of the most vital importance is that you obtain this much of each!" He cupped his hands to indicate a vaguely pint-sized amount. "And when you return, I shall treat you to a dish the likes of which you have never tasted!"

"Uh-huh." I folded my front legs across my chest. "You come across a patch of nightshade out in the forest you want to introduce me to?"

His smirk wavered for the briefest of instants. If I hadn't gotten so used to that long, weird face of his, I doubt I would've noticed. But—

Had he looked hurt?

Like I said, though, his smirk was back almost immediately. "In my part of the world, we call that brand of nightshade a tomato. I assume you've heard of it considering you've a veritable garden of it and other such edible vegetation growing wild within the nearby woods."

I stood from the desk and made a show of stretching. "Y'know, after three months of wild grass and iced tea, I'll be happy to let you cook something." I raised a hoof. "As long as we're both eating from the same pot."

He snorted. "You should feel fortunate that I am allowing you a share of my arroz con frijoles." He started into the kitchen, his tail hand shooing me away. "Now be off with you, and let me create my salsa!"

I couldn't help smiling, and I was out the front door and spreading my wings for the half-hour flight into Lone Pine before I realized that I wasn't wearing Kay's bonnet, shawl, and glasses.

The thought froze me in place for a second, and then I scrambled back into the house. I almost even ran upstairs to slip my safari jacket and pith helmet on underneath the shawl and bonnet—I'd had both ensembles specially made to fit together that way—but I stopped at the desk, my mouth open and reaching for the glasses.

What was it Ahuizotl had said a minute ago? That we'd just survived three months together?

And the thing was: it hadn't been Daring Do who'd done that, and it hadn't been A. K. Yearling, either. Yes, I'd called upon the skills I'd learned as both of them, but for the most part—

For the most part, it had just been me.

So did I need to go all A. K. Yearling just to fly into town and visit Vendor's grocery store?

The reaction in my gut was immediate. I mean, I was going out! Of course I needed to put on my disguise! Look what had happened when I'd been myself with Ahuizotl! He'd nearly killed me!

Except it had been Daring Do he'd wanted to kill, hadn't it? Me, he'd just spent a whole quarter of a year writing a book with...

Shaking my head, I bit down on my glasses, flipped them into place, and flapped out the door.

The flight there and back passed uneventfully, the packages of rice and pinto beans balancing nicely in the pockets on either side of my shawl. Any other time, I would've welcomed the calm, but with nothing else to focus on, my mind kept going places I didn't want it to go: that little house on the outskirts of Phillydelphia, so tidy outside but festering inside; big, brooding Dad and cutting-as-a-whip Mom; the fights escalating slowly over a decade as quiet little Cricket learned the bargaining and survival skills she needed to avoid the traps the two set for each other.

Then came that final night—the cursing, the smashing furniture, the shattering glass, the fire roaring through the house from an end table bucked into the mantelpiece to scatter kindling all over the living room floor—Cricket only making it out by becoming her imaginary friend Daring Do. Her life dissolved into running after that, hiding and lying, Kay springing into being around her whenever she needed to smile and talk and deal with adults both well-meaning and possibly not so well-meaning. With those two as my shields—

I mean, as her shields. I mean—

Crushing every thought in my head, I forced my attention to skim over the forest below in the hopes of finding a stray timberwolf or cragodile I could fight.

The stupid things never show up when you need them, though, and I arrived home just about an hour after I'd left. Pushing my way through the front door, I opened my senses to detect any trap Ahuizotl might've set up while I was gone—

And stepped into a cloud of absolute ambrosia, the scents of chilies and spices wrapping around me as warm and perfect as blankets on a cold winter night. I more drifted than flew back into the kitchen, the aromas beckoning me onward like the glinting of gold at the end of some shadowy corridor. Floating through the doorway, I had to gawk at the sight: my big carving knife flashing in Ahuizotl's right hand; his tail hand darting my cheese grater in, out, up, and down; buckets and pans of herbs and vegetables spread across every inch of the counter; his left hand grabbing tomatoes, garlic cloves, peppers, leaves and twigs and tubers I didn't recognize and flinging them into the path of the knife and the grater.

I breathed in, breathed out, and breathed in again. "Incredible," I said, my eyes curling closed to focus more of my brain on my sense of smell.

"Of course," came the rich smoke of his voice. "Now, your attention, please, Daring Do, for you have two duties you must perform lest this entire endeavor collapse into ash and ruin!" I snapped my eyes open to see him gesturing to two of my saucepans, bubbling away on top of the stove. "The rice goes into the pot on the left, the beans into the pot on the right! And while the beans must boil uncovered for an hour, the rice must be covered, the heat below it must be turned down to the merest trickle, and the pot must be allowed to simmer for no more than forty minutes!"

Smiling, I shook my hat and glasses off onto the kitchen table and moved to the stove. "I never knew cooking was so dramatic."

"Life is drama," he said, "or it is nothing." The shunk, shunk, shunk of his knife didn't even slow down, and his chuckle stroked my ears as I pulled the two packages from my shawl. "I have a feeling you might disagree with that statement, however."

I shrugged, tore the bean bag open with my teeth, and dumped the things into the water boiling in the pot on the right. "Drama's got its place: leaping free from the jaws of death at the last minute and like that." I couldn't help giving him a sideways glance. "I imagine your minions must be getting bored after three months without you injecting your particular brand of drama into their lives."

"Minions?" He set my giant iron frying pan onto the third of the stove's four burners and poured olive oil into it. "I haven't a permanent staff, if that's what you're implying. When I need them, I simply hire whatever mercenaries I may find available."

Chewing carefully, I made a hole in the rice bag and emptied it into the other pot. "Even the cats?"

"Especially the cats." With a hind foot, he pulled open the bottom panel on the oven and shoved in a log from the hamper. "Little Fluffy Pookums is quite the hard-nosed negotiator."

"What?" I glared at him. "Then why did you fight so hard back in Dust Jacket's office when I insisted on that 'no pets' clause in the contract?"

He puffed a loud breath through his nostrils. "Image, of course. And knowing how much the felines annoy you, I would have paid any price they'd asked to have them here at my side." Swiveling his head, he nodded to the pot in front of me. "Perhaps you recall the word 'simmer' in the instructions I gave you earlier?"

"Image, huh?" I dialed the heat down on the burner below the rice and tucked the lid into place. "And here I thought you ran a vast criminal empire that stretched across the whole of the Tenochticlan Basin."

He grunted, his attention focused on slowly tipping the cutting board full of chopped-up vegetables into the frying pan. "I feel it would be safe to say that we each had any number of mistaken ideas about the other before this collaboration began." Sizzling burst from the pan, and the scent in the kitchen ratcheted up from 'delicious' to 'mouth-watering.' "I for instance constantly imagined Daring Do boasting of her prowess before her fellow adventurers in some capacious club founded hundreds of years ago by your Princess Celestia as a way of celebrating pony dominance over all the world. Or I would imagine A. K. Yearling surrounded by sycophantic, upper-crust pseudo-intellectuals toasting her literary success at an unending string of well-attended salons and black-tie-only functions."

I had turned to breathe in the full effect of the salsa cooking, so when he glanced up, I found my eyes meeting his not a hoof's breadth from the end of my snout. "But never," he went on, his words suddenly quiet, "in my wildest dreams would I have imagined the truth about you, whoever you are. And never have I been so pleased to be proven incorrect."

The glint in those eyes made my heart hammer harder than when I'd been wrapped in his ropes, and it took all Daring Do's strength and A. K. Yearling's resolve not to leap away. "Glad to be of service," I said, my voice somehow not cracking at all. I crooked a hoof over my shoulder at the refrigerator. "I'm getting some tea. You want any?"

"I do." He straightened quickly, his tail hand appearing from around his left side with a spatula gripped in its fingers. "And I thank you."

Walking away from him was about as hard a thing as I'd done in years. Not because I thought he might grab the knife and leap at me—that I could've dealt with. But because my every instinct was telling me to run. I mean, the way he'd suddenly become a person I could live and talk and work with?

No way could I deal with that.

Still, I was good at pretending, so I got us our iced teas and sat chatting with him while he mixed up the stuff. And while I can't remember a single thing either of us said, no way will I ever forget that first taste of his arroz con frijoles: the sweetness of the rice, the saltiness of the beans, the fire of the peppers, the whole rich combination of flavors.

And the next day, we got to work revising the book.